This year brought filmgoers three top-notch biographical films on troubled women pop stars: Amy, Janis: Little Girl Blue; and What Happened, Miss Simone? Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin took too many drugs and flamed out early. Nina Simone, though, soldiered against high odds on into old age, battling the twin tormentors of mental illness and racism. Simone became an activist, a towering talent, and a peripatetic international diva with a temper to be feared. Amy and Janis break your heart. Miss Simone breaks your heart, too, but stimulates your mind in a way the other two don’t. It’s a movie as engaged and candid as Simone’s formidable music.
Director Liz Garbus uses period stock footage to give a sense of the poverty and racial exclusion that marred the early life of Nina Simone, née Eunice Waymon. Born poor in 1933 North Carolina, young Eunice was undertaken as a project by a white woman who paid for her classical piano lessons with the goal of entering a conservatory. Thus a tension was established: Eunice faced impossibly high expectations as a music student on the one hand while enduring systemic contempt as a black female on the other. No wonder demanding goals and a sense of racial injustice became dominant themes in her life thereafter.
Rejection from the Curtis Institute of Music was an embittering experience that must have stunted Simone’s ability to trust. But, the movie makes clear, Simone’s classical skills gave her music a defining edge of structure and discipline. The singer with the coffee-dark, husky voice and the steely virtuosity made an impression like no one else.
Reduced to playing dive bars in Atlantic City under her new stage name, Simone met and married Andy Stroud, a tough police detective turned manager who aggressively jump-started her career. By the early 1960s, she was appearing on TV, selling masses of records, and tickling the ivories for a bemused Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion. Clips from this period show off a performer who balances intense concentration and carefree delight—a marvel to behold.
At the same time, glimpses of her diaries reveal that Simone fought depression and rankled against a punishing concert schedule, and the cop she’d married was now beating her. Interviews with the singer’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, and musical collaborator Al Schackman hint that an inevitable crackup was on its way.
Her meltdown coincided with the explosive arrival of the civil rights movement. The showbiz right brain and socially conscious left brain of What Happened, Miss Simone? come together at this point, giving the film poignancy and gravitas. Simone wrote and performed protest songs like the unforgettable “Mississippi Goddam,” in which she poured out her rage and helplessness. She joined forces with Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, and Malcolm X. Simone took big risks and paid for them big. Her activism and a weary public’s shift toward lightweight pop ended her career. By 1970, Nina Simone had fled the United States in search of creative freedom and peace of mind; the second proved more elusive than the first.
The movie does not dwell on the singer’s impulsive escapes to Liberia, Paris, and Barbados, nor the gun battles and torrid affairs of her later years. What Happened just lets hard-hitting performance and audio clips suggest the star’s painful paranoia and showcase her enduring charisma and talent.
What Happened, Miss Simone? is a focused, caring portrait of a performer whose work deserves a place among America’s greats. It’s also a valuable minihistory of American racism, violence, and crushed hopes. This second aspect of the film delivers something more than the usual show business career retrospective. You will be left with thought, reflection, and regrets long after it has ended.